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Energy drinks gain popularity but also cause concern

Energy drinks, coffee and soda are just some of the caffeinated beverage options out there.
Energy drinks, coffee and soda are just some of the caffeinated beverage options out there.

DeKALB – Sleepy students walking off an early morning bus into Northern Illinois University’s Holmes Student Center have a solution for their tired eyes just a few feet away.

Awaiting them through the doors is a large Rockstar Energy Drink vending machine, promising double strength and double length remedies to grogginess. For students such as Bridgett Phelan, energy drinks are her extra-caffeinated cup of tea when it comes to test time.

“I love Red Bull,” said Phelan, a sophomore from Bourbonnais. “I don’t know that it makes me focus more, but it makes me stay up longer when I’m studying for tests or finals. It works better than coffee.”

Energy drinks are growing in popularity as alternatives to coffee or soda for people needing a boost. The energy drink industry is growing at a rate of between 15 percent to 25 percent each year, according to the Beverage Digest.

John Bush, CEO of the Dolce Beverage Group in Streamwood, launched KICK Energy in the Chicago suburbs in June 2011 and is now in six states; 26 distributors are expected to join in the first quarter of 2013.

Bush said college campuses have been a huge target market for the energy drink industry and helped fuel growth and expansion.

“Very creative marketing has led the way,” Bush said of energy drink growth. “There are certain demographics the soda industry thought they had in their back pocket that they really didn’t.”

The beverages have aided students in long-night study sessions, but they also have come under scrutiny for the potentially dangerous side effects.

Monster Energy drinks made national news after they were linked to a series of deaths, including a 14-year-old girl in December 2011 who consumed two large cans in an hour.

The danger of energy drinks can increase on a college campus where the temptation to mix them with alcohol is heightened, said NIU senior Michael Houchin. Houchin, who said he drinks Red Bull and 5-Hour Energy shots, said although he has mixed alcohol and energy drinks in the past, it is a danger he and others should avoid.

“All you have to do is look at what happens on campus to see what can happen,” he said. “I think they’re fine when you use them responsibly.”

Steve Lux, senior health educator at NIU’s health enhancement department, said there is nothing inherently dangerous about energy drinks, but they must be consumed in moderation like any substance. He said with or without alcohol, the drinks can cause rapid heart rates, nervousness or other issues.

But in some ways, he said, energy drinks are safer than soda. He said people become more easily hooked and dependent on soda, drinking between two to four liters a day, which can lead to obesity, diabetes and kidney problems.

“Anything we put in our bodies can cause dependency whether physically addictive or not,” he said. “As long as [energy drinks] are not abused, they can meet a need.”

It is something NIU sophomore Alyssa Hasman can avoid, even when standing two feet away from that Rockstar Energy vending machine.

“I don’t like Red Bull,” Hasman said. “I never have any of that stuff.”

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